There is a myth abroad in this great land that liberals can't stand pro football. Like so many myths, it's partly true, definitely so in refined circles. The violence, the beer commercials—these are an affront to civilized minds. When left-leaning op-ed columnists want to demonstrate that they're in the American swim, they're far more likely to out themselves as baseball fans. But that tic seems to apply across the political spectrum, and geez, isn't it nauseating? Reading George Will on baseball is like watching a praying mantis suit up as a Good Humor man.
Well, I don't care. True, I root for absolutely anyone to beat the New York Yankees when they're in a World Series, because I know Moloch when I see him. Otherwise, baseball may be a national pastime to most, but it never meant squat to me. The NFL, on the other hand, I purely love.
Because I was in my twenties before I got hooked, I'll always be the kind of fundamentally unserious football nut whose enthusiasm is untainted by green-visor expertise, which I regret. But that's hardly a disqualifier here. Like the rootless cosmopolitan I am, I had a long and lonesome trek in search of a team to truly call my own. As happy as I was otherwise in Los Angeles in the '80s, I felt the pinch of a basically football-allergic culture. Midway through their 13-season exile from Oakland, the Raiders couldn't sell out home games even at their peak in a city infinitely fonder of the Dodgers and totally besotted with the Lakers. L.A. will be a football town the same day Salt Lake City gets internationally famous for its red-light district.
The Redskins were one reason I looked forward to relocating to D.C. Little did I know how owner Dan Snyder's obnoxiousness was going to ruin them for me, since the man's got no loyalty to his own team except as an investment-cum-ego stroke. To the Snyders of this world, that may be a tautology. The happy ending came when my wife and I said the hell with it and moved to New Orleans; it's not just that no other sport besides football counts for much down here. For about half the year, planning a Mardi Gras costume aside, no other topic counts for much.
Then again, the Saints got knocked out of the playoffs last week. Who in Vince Lombardi's name am I supposed to root for now? Since I figure more than a few of you out there are in the same boat—and Redskins fans probably guessed they would be by, like, October—I've decided to provide what I'm pretty sure is an American Prospect first: the left-wing dilettante's guide to this weekend's conference championships and February 5's Super Bowl.
If you're like me, the bittersweet fun of the post-season is that you can be as capricious and even as perverse as you want. That's if you don't have money riding on the outcomes, which I never do (not from principle, just because I'm a lousy handicapper). Since loyalty to your home team is moot, you're on a sanctioned vacation from football monogamy. Friends with passionate hometown attachments are the best gateway to affiliation by proxy, but then you risk sharing their heartbreak. I still remember suffering in L.A. with a lifelong Buffalo Bills fanatic through three consecutive Super Bowl losses before even she got fed up the fourth time around and started jeering at the screen. I think it was either that or a straitjacket.
Unless some other factor intervenes, though, "Which team would Joe Hill root for?" has long been my favorite way of settling on my post-season allegiances. Resilient teams from hard-luck cities, proudly blue-collar franchises versus moneyed ones whose sky boxes I imagine crammed with disgusting Georg Grosz richies—yeah, they make signing up easy. So you can see why last year's Packers-Steelers Super Bowl matchup was a real dilemma for me. (Ah, how those names alone sing of a vanished proletarian America, and so forth.) Weighing my fondness for Pittsburgh-the-city and safety Troy Polamalu's "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!" act against QB Ben Roethlisberger's unpleasant sexual-assault rap sheet, I finally went Steelers, but I wasn't completely happy about it. Nor was I especially bummed when the Packers won.
A year later, I also barely remember the game. You see, only one emotion can truly stir a fan whose own team is out of the running to rabid post-season mania: hatred. If a team you abominate is in the mix, you're going to be much more stoked to see 'em get taken apart like a cheap watch than to see anyone else succeed—and brother, do I have company in my emnity this year. Googling "New England Patriots" in tandem with "evil empire" netted me 284,000 hits last week.
Trying "New England Patriots" paired with plain old "evil" produced 19 million, FYI. Sometimes, I just love being an American. Anyway, here's my idiosyncratic crib sheet on the last four teams standing:
San Francisco 49'ers. Granted, I'm prejudiced. These jokers would almost certainly have lost to my beloved Saints last week if departing New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams—bye, Robespierre, your work here is done—hadn't bungled by blitzing them with 40 seconds left on the clock. But I haven't been into the 49'ers since Joe Montana's day, and they don't give an out-of-town fan much to glom onto. Face it, to much of the country—and even to me—it just seems peculiar that arty, ultra-liberal San Francisco even has, wants, or needs a successful NFL franchise. It's like Jacksonville bragging up its world-class symphony orchestra and its busy and helpful Communist Party. Only going up against New England in the Super Bowl could turn non-San Franciscans into frenzied 49'ers fans, and even if they won, we wouldn't be talking on February 6 about how great they were. We'd be talking about our satisfaction at who they beat.
New York Giants. You have to feel for the 2008 Super Bowl's upset winners—over the Patriots—because even that triumph couldn't make 'em chic in New Yorkers' eyes. Not insofar as New York means Manhattan, anyhow, which when chic is the issue it obviously does. Either despite or because of being flightier, the Jets deliver more of what New Yorkers really want from a football team: cocky personalities, trash talk, soap opera. That's why it's peculiarly appropriate that Eli Manning will be overshadowed all the way to the Hall of Fame by big brother Peyton—who didn't even play for the Colts this year and still got more press. These are all excellent reasons to say "Go, Giants." Embrace your inner Dobbin.
Baltimore Ravens. They get points in my book for being the only NFL team whose name is a literary reference. They get more thanks to my fondness for Balmer itself, the only Northeast Corridor city whose working class—just ask John Waters—doubles as its bohemia. And they're the last team standing between the Evil Empire and the Super Bowl. No question who I'm rooting for in that game on Sunday.
New England Patriots. To paraphrase Joan Didion: "What makes the New England Patriots evil?" some people ask. I never ask. It's not just that coach Bill Belichick is such a dick or that Tom Brady—the Holden Caulfield of the NFL—comes across on the tube as the most petulant, self-engrossed star quarterback in sight. Every football era needs one powerhouse team whose combination of obnoxious hubris, Terminator-style corporate M.O. and smirking fans lets the rest of us take refuge in muttering that at least our team is, y'know, human. The Patriots deliver those gratifyingly hateful goods better than any franchise since the Tom Landry-era Dallas Cowboys, and I suppose we should be grateful that at least—unlike "America's Team" in Landry's day—they don't bring God into it as their über-coach (Denver QB Tim Tebow had a wistful monopoly on that ploy this season). The simple truth is that reviling them is more fun than liking them could possibly be, and Pats fans don't know what they're missing. Whenever their Evil Empire falls short, a briefly united nation rejoices—and it feels really good.